About Me

My photo
I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Spain Rodriguez Brings a Hard Urban Edge to Gresham’s “Nightmare Alley”

Nightmare Alley

Spain Rodriguez and William Lindsay Gresham

(Fantagraphics Books; 136 pages; 1998)

ISBN 1-56097-511-3

I know that I have previously raved about William Lindsay Gresham’s brilliant Nightmare Alley. This is noir of the highest quality with a wrenching twist at the end, one of the highest quality novels of its type I have been lucky enough to read.

And I also know that in reviewing Gresham’s book, I praised Spain Rodriguez’s dark and creepy adaptation. But my comments were based largely on a handful of panels from the graphic novel that were available on line, as I hadn't had an opportunity to read the entire graphic adaptation.

Since then I have bought a copy of Rodriguez’s rendering from a dealer in New York and had a chance to read it through. Now that I have had a chance to go through it thoroughly from cover to cover, I am even more impressed.

Spain Rodriguez
Spain's treatment, rendered in his stark, two-fisted style (think of his most famous creation, Trashman) is more of transcription than an adaptation. The story adheres very closely to William Lindsay Gresham's original and even quotes entire sections of the original text.

It keeps the grim, cynical tone of Gresham's masterpiece fully, right down to the last four panels, which encapsulate graphically something that is only hinted at in the original novel. But Rodriguez goes Gresham one better: he actually smooths the narrative, providing or clarifying links between the characters while maintaining the tenor and pace of Gresham's original story.

The Ten-o-One Carnival

In fact, in terms of clarity and maintaining the driving pace of Gresham’s novel, Rodriguez actually manages to improve on the original.

To recap, the story is essentially the journey of Stanton Carlisle from a penny-ante grifter and sleight-of-hand artist in a traveling carny to a top-billed spiritualist, all based on his skill at the “cold read,” a mentalist scam that involves picking up on vocal cues, visual clues and other minuscule pieces of evidence that allow him to “read” the sucker’s mind.
Stan's breakthrough as a "cold reader" (part one)
Stan's Breakthrough (Part Two)
Once he hits the top, things go wrong in a classic fashion and he finds himself facing fraud and assault charges. He goes on the run, eventually making his way back to the carnival and his ultimate degradation. 

Big Time!
 The novel is tough, dark and cynical. Carlisle falls frighteningly far in a brief period. He bungles a con involving a millionaire industrialist he sets out to scam and the flop transforms his  dream of running his own “spiritualist” church and using it to con wealthy suckers. His fantasy is transformed into a twisted nightmare of paranoid flight from the law, the same one he'd had all his life:

"Ever since he was a kid, Stan had had the dream he was running down a dark alley. Far down at the end of it a light burned but there was something behind him, getting closer, until he woke up trembling and never reached the light . . . [it was his] nightmare alley."

Rodriguez doesn’t simply replicate the story in his artwork; he actually punches the narrative up, and the stark chiaroscuro graphics he uses to illustrate the tale are perfect given the dark and grim nature of Gresham’s story.

One of the things that makes Nightmare Alley so memorable is Gresham’s deft use of carny slang in creating his narrative and giving a voice to his characters. Rodriguez is faithful to Gresham’s rolling show lingo, using it throughout his adaptation, but adding a visual element to the dialog that helps the reader understand obscure and little used terms like mitt camp, rube, be cool, spook racket.

Sadly, Fantagraphic Books tells me that Spain’s Nightmare Alley is now out of print, but copies can be found for sale by collectors in a variety of locales. If you are a noir fan – or simply like a solid piece of graphic story-telling – you should add this to your library.

1 comment:

  1. I've not read the novel yet, but I have seen the movie, with Tyrone Power as Carlisle. I'm wondering how faithful the movie is to the book?

    Recently read Stephen King's novel Joyland, about an amusement park, in which he appears to pay homage to carny life, so much so that I wonder if he was influenced, to some degree, by Gresham? Just a thought.